VA CIO charts progress on clearing claims backlog

Veterans Affairs Department CIO Roger Baker is well aware of the flak surrounding the agency’s claims backlog, but says there isn't a quick-fix solution.

“If you’re watching the press, our claims backlog is the biggest news these days out of the VA, and has been for 20 years,” he said. “We’re doing something about it. I think everyone in this room understands that . . .  it ain’t easy.”

Addressing a crowd mostly of government contractors at Deltek’s Aug. 15 industry forum in McLean, Va., Baker spoke of how VA has been affected by the tightened fiscal environment and how the agency has doubled down on accountability in IT spending for the past three and a half years.

“It’s really hard to say a $3.3 billion budget is tight, but let me assure you: It sure feels that way inside the VA,” he told the audience.

IT has become “a pretty critical part” of VA’s fabric, he said. When Baker joined the department, he and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki agreed VA should first “renovate IT and then use IT to renovate the department.”

The agency is currently taking that exact path. Just last week, VA deployed version three of the Veterans Benefits Management System, a paperless processing system for claims. VA officials first rolled out the nationwide initiative in April 2012, and Shinseki called it an important high point in VA’s transformation to achieve the goal of processing all disability claims within 125 days at a 98 percent accuracy level in 2015.

Baker said the House and the Senate so far seem inclined to grant President Barack Obama’s budget request for 2013, which includes the $3.3 billion for IT that Baker mentioned --  a $216 million, or roughly 5 percent, increase over fiscal 2012 levels.

“We’ve gotten the message across to the House and the Senate, and the message is pretty simple: Every dollar you invest in VA IT is going to be well spent,” Baker said. “We can account for it, we can track it [and] we can tell you what we got for it.”

Similar to the rest of the government, VA struggles with the new reality of increased mission requirements amid shrinking budgets. Part of the growing workload for VA comes from returning service members “who need and deserve the support their country promised them,” Baker said. 
Baker acknowledged the negative attention around the department’s beleaguered claims processing, but said VA is taking measures to improve the situation, though the process is time consuming. The two past decades have demonstrated the VA backlog problem isn’t something that can be fixed “by throwing more people at it – it doesn’t happen,” Baker said.

“The definition of insanity, as Einstein said, is repeating the same process over and over and expecting different results,” he said. “We have to create an automated paperless system . . . so we can actually address that backlog and [reach] the secretary’s goal of no claim greater than 125 days.” 

IT should focus on renovating the business, which is how VA views IT, Baker said. The objective 3 and a half years ago was to build a better IT organization, not for IT purposes but for the sake of business.

That groundwork has today resulted in the department being able to deliver the technology needed to modernize the entire VA, he said.

“That’s a hell of a thing for this organization to be proud of,” Baker said. 

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.


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